Check in on the Royals' Minor League stars

October 18th, 2021
Tim Campbell/

KANSAS CITY -- The Royals had one of the most successful seasons in the Minor Leagues in 2021, and you already know the big names that helped them do so: Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez proved themselves in the upper levels of the Minors and presented three power-packed options for Kansas City’s '22 lineup.

But those three weren’t the only ones who had breakout years. A multitude of players helped High-A Quad Cities and Double-A Northwest Arkansas earn league championships. Recent draft picks got their first tastes of professional ball. And the Royals enter 2022 with high hopes, not only for their Major League club, but also for their farm system.

3 players who forced their way onto the radar this year

1B Vinnie Pasquantino
The 24-year-old slugger saw his numbers rise in his second professional season in 2021, two years after he was drafted in the 11th round out of Old Dominion. Pasquantino, who entered the Royals’ Top 30 prospect list at No. 17 this year, posted a .957 OPS and hit 24 home runs across 61 games at High-A Quad Cities and 55 at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. He has a powerful left-handed swing, but what really stands out is his plate discipline. He had an 11 percent strikeout rate at Double-A, down from 16.1 percent in 2019 and 13.8 percent at High-A this year.

Plus, the Royals love Pasquantino’s leadership and the way he has commanded every clubhouse he’s called home. If he continues to improve, he’ll be a valuable depth piece for the Royals next season.

RHP Will Klein
During Spring Training, one Royals staffer called Klein a “secret weapon.” Why? Because he was mostly a reliever at Eastern Illinois, out of which Klein was drafted in the fifth round in 2020, and his arsenal features a two-pitch power mix with a fastball and curveball, which profiles best as a reliever. But the Royals are intrigued by his changeup development, and that could give him a chance to be a starter.

While he appeared out of the bullpen for workload purposes, Klein showed how effective he can be across multiple innings for the organization, posting a 3.20 ERA across 70 1/3 innings (36 games) in High-A. He struck out 121 and walked 44, holding opponents to a .171 average. How the Royals deploy the 21-year-old will be interesting to watch, but if he continues to improve his command, he could be a big piece of the Royals’ future.

LHP Anthony Veneziano
Klein’s teammate at Quad Cities, Veneziano went 6-4 this season, recording a 3.75 ERA in 22 starts. The lefty struck out 127 batters in 93 2/3 innings (12.2 K/9), which led all Royals Minor League pitchers and tied for second among High-A pitchers. Veneziano held opponents to a .222 average and posted a 1.21 WHIP. The 24-year-old was the Royals’ 10th-round pick out of Coastal Carolina University in 2019, and his season earned him the High-A Central Pitcher of the Year award.

2 possible breakout players in 2022

LHP Asa Lacy
Scouts who saw Lacy, the No. 4-overall pick in 2020 and the Royals’ No. 2 prospect, at High-A this year were clear that the lefty has a big, exciting arm with potential plus-plus stuff. But it wasn’t effective in his first professional season. Lacy walked 41 batters in 52 innings and posted a 5.19 ERA with 79 strikeouts before he was shut down with a left shoulder injury. His lack of command was an issue, and scouts also noticed a lack of fluidity in his delivery.

These are all signs of a pitcher getting his feet wet in his first season of professional ball, and they are clear points of focus for Lacy in the Arizona Fall League this month. If Lacy can stay healthy and get his command under control, he’s poised for a big breakout next year.

2B Michael Massey
When you look at his numbers, you might think that this season was Massey’s breakout year: He posted an .882 OPS at High-A, with 21 home runs, 87 RBIs and 12 stolen bases. The infielder turned heads all year and jumped back on the radar after his Draft stock fell in 2019 -- the Royals snagged him in the fourth round -- due to a back injury suffered at Illinois.

But many in the Royals organization believe Massey is just getting started. He has always been contact-oriented, but his power saw a surge this year, jumping from a .399 slugging percentage in rookie ball in ’19 to a .531 percentage this year. His walk rate (7.5 percent) will be a focus, but he displays the kind of offensive and defensive tools to be a legitimate infield prospect. His next test will be whether he can show it in the upper levels of the Minors.

1 big question for next year

Can the Royals sustain their hitting development success?

The biggest trend the Royals saw across their farm system in 2021 was the emergence of offense -- and a lot of it. Thanks to an overhaul in their hitting development program, spearheaded by general manager J.J. Picollo and run by hitting coordinator Alec Zumwalt, a multitude of hitters had breakout seasons. It’s why you saw Melendez and Pratto put their 2019 seasons behind them and why you saw Pasquantino, Massey and more jump onto the scene.

The key for 2022 will be to sustain that run and have more players buy into the approach that staffers are preaching. Eventually, the Royals hope that success is transitioned to the Major Leagues.